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Leprechauns: Mythology of the Little People

Leprechauns are often stereotyped, misunderstood—especially in the United States—and even maligned, as in a series of 1990s horror films in which the leprechaun is a malevolent little beastie.

Leprechauns have been used to sell cereal (Lucky Charms) and as mascots for sports teams (the Boston Celtics). They have been portrayed as pyromaniacs (in an episode of The Simpsons), and their musical taste has been impugned—sentimental Irish music is called Leprechaun Music. And, of course, it is common knowledge that leprechauns have a pot of gold.

How does all of all of this “leprechaun lore” stack up to the leprechaun’s real place in Irish mythology? As with most fantasy figures, leprechauns have evolved over the years, and the most romantic aspects of their legend have survived.

A commonly accepted image of a leprechaun is of a small, old man with a red beard and wearing a top hat. He is often intoxicated, but never so drunk that he can’t ply his trade as a shoemaker or a tinker. The first sign that a leprechaun is near usually is the tapping of his hammer.

It’s unclear where the name “leprechaun” comes from. It may be from leath bhrogan, Irish for shoemaker, or it may derive from the Irish word luacharma’n for pygmy.

Leprechauns have not been around that long. They rarely are spoken of in folk tales, those stories that usually concern a human hero and are given a more formal telling. Leprechaun tales usually are told casually by locals and contain local names and scenery.

Only since the early 20th Century have leprechauns been depicted as wearing emerald green; the first leprechauns wore red, and their physical appearance varied depending on where in Ireland they lived.

Unlike the malicious creature in the Leprechaun films, leprechauns like solitude and usually avoid human habitations, although some have adopted human families and have even followed them abroad.

In general, though, leprechauns don’t have much use for humans, whom they consider foolish and greedy.

Leprechauns are cunning, mischievous and sometimes cranky, but they generally don’t harm people. They have a “gift for gab” and would be the life of the party, if you could get them to attend human parties.

Leprechauns do have a treasure, left by the Vikings when they plundered Ireland in the eighth and ninth Centuries A.D., which they bury in crocks of gold.

Because leprechauns are honest, if you capture one, he must tell you where he’s hidden his gold, but beware of his tricks. You can hold a leprechaun in place with your eyes, but if you glance away, he will vanish.

Each leprechaun carries two leather pouches, one containing a silver coin and the other a gold coin, to bribe captors to set him free. But both coins are bewitched; once the leprechaun has paid his ransom and gained his freedom, the silver returns to his purse, and the gold turns to leaves or ashes.

Copyright 2013 by David Kubicek

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Wail of the Banshee: Harbinger of Death in Irish Folklore

A mournful wail shatters the stillness, rising and falling like ocean waves, echoing through the dark, lonely hills. It is the cry of the Banshee, an omen that someone will die.

According to Irish folklore, the Banshee wails, or “keens,” for only the five major families of Ireland: the O’Neils, the O’Briens, the O’Connors, the O’Gradys, and the Kavanaghs. Each Banshee attaches itself to a mortal family and follows that family wherever it travels, even across the ocean.

When someone in the family is about to die she stalks the hills around their home, her silver-grey hair streaming like a gossamer waterfall to the ground, her face pale and eyes red from weeping, her grey-white cloak as fine as cobwebs clinging to her tall slender frame. If you catch a Banshee, she must reveal the name of the person for whom she is keening.

The Banshee can take many forms. She may appear as a beautiful young woman, as a stately matron, as an old hag, or as an animal Irish folklore associates with witchcraft, such as a hooded crow, a hare, or a weasel. Some legends maintain that she is a ghost, often of a murdered woman or woman who died in childbirth.

In Ireland she is called Bean Sidhe (Sidhe pronounced “shee”), which literally means “woman of the fairy mound.” Her Scottish counterpart is Bean Nighe, or “washer woman,” which is another form she can take. The English word “keen” is derived from the Irish caoineadh, which means “lament.”

Traditionally, a woman would sing a lament, which was said to be an imitation of the Banshee’s cry, at peasant funerals.

According to legend, Banshees would appear before the death of a member of the five major families and sing their laments. If several banshees appeared, it foretold that someone great or holy would die.

The Banshee herself often attends funerals, her wails blending in with those of the mourners.

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